Even blood tests can be wrong. At Back to the Wild Wildlife Rehabilitation & Nature Education Center, located in Castalia, Ohio, they were stunned when their program American Bald Eagle, whom they had had blood tested and thought was a male, laid an egg and they suddenly knew he was definitely a she.
“The egg was not fertile (she had never been in a cage with another eagle),” said sanctuary manager Heather Tuttle. “We were shocked to say the least. Don’t worry, we got our money back from the blood test.”
But that’s not the only part of this eagle’s story that makes her unique.
“This particular eagle was rescued in 2003 by our founder and her husband, Mona and Bill Rutger,” Tuttle said. “When she was admitted, it quickly became apparent that she was suffering from West Nile Virus, a deadly disease accidentally introduced to the USA.”
Mona and Bill Rutger founded Back to the Wild in 1990 with a vision to “rescue, rehabilitate, and return to the wild, animals impacted by human carelessness.” They also hoped to prevent many of the injuries they saw with public education programs.
West Nile was introduced into the United States in New York City in 1999. Likely carried here by an infected mosquito, the disease has wreaked havoc on native bird populations.
“Because it was not an native disease, America’s birds had no natural immunity and quickly fell prey to the virus,” Tuttle said. “Many birds who contracted West Nile quickly perished.”
Banded as an eaglet the center was able to discover the Bald Eagle had hatched in 1990, the same year Back to the Wild was founded, in Pickeral Creek, had had a mate and also raised young. The center expected the eagle to also lose her fight with the deadly disease. But they under estimated her will to live.
“Despite coming to us on death’s door, within weeks, this eagle was acting more alert and aware.,” Tuttle said. “It was a long, slow road, but she fully recovered from an illness that should have killed her…that killed countless others like her.”
Unfortunately the eagle didn’t actually fully recover. West Nile has a nasty habit of affecting the central nervous system of its victims and it greatly impacted the eagles ability to see. Eagles hunt based off of their vision. This eagle wouldn’t be able to hunt properly and would most likely starve to death in the wild, so the Back to the Wild staff made the decision to keep the eagle at the center and allow her to live out the rest of her days as a wild animal ambassador.
“In the 12 years since she came to be part of our rehab team, this particular ambassador has helped us touch the hearts of nearly 1 million people,” Tuttle said. “She has inspired thoughtfulness in humans, caring, compassion, and, perhaps most importantly, curiosity. To quote Baba Dioum, ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.'”
You may have noticed the eagle has never been identified as anything other then the program eagle. Some wonder why the center doesn’t give the ambassador animals names. There is a very good reason.
“Here at Back to the Wild, we rescue WILD animals,” Tuttle said. “In order to preserve that spirit, we do not name our animals because they are not actually ours. In our lessons, we want children, and adults, to understand that these animals belong to the wild and not to us. They are never our pets, they are ambassadors for wildlife.”
Back to the Wild depends 100 percent on public donations. They receive no funding from the state and federal agencies who license them. In 2014 the sanctuary fell on difficult financial times and is still recovering. If you would like to make a donation to help keep this much needed center open to be able to continue their work in the rehabilitation of wild animals and educating the public about their impact on the environment around them you can visit the centers website, Back to the Wild. You can also plan a visit to the sanctuary, possibly volunteer, become an intern or even “adopt” a rescued animal.